TRUE WEALTH VENTURES
Kerry Rupp is a General Partner at True Wealth Ventures, an early-stage venture capital fund investing in women-led businesses in the sustainable consumer and consumer health sectors. She is also a nationally-certified instructor for the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program, helping university-based teams to commercialize their science and technology research. She is an active startup coach who is asked to judge at startup competitions nationwide and is a frequent speaker on entrepreneurship, innovation and early-stage investing. She serves as a mentor at Capital Factory, on the board of the Austin Healthcare Council, on the Advisory Panel of the Texas Health Catalyst program at Dell Medical School, and on the Steering Committee for Women@Austin, an organization focused on making Austin the best place to be a woman entrepreneur.
In addition, Kerry provides innovation & strategy consulting through her DisRuppt practice, leveraging over 20 years' experience launching and growing startups and new lines of business. Her core service areas are Corporate Innovation, Strategy & Business Development, Venture & Corporate Development and Economic Development.
Previously, Kerry was CEO at DreamIt, a Top Ten US startup accelerator and early-stage venture fund, where she was directly involved with the launch of over 150 companies. During her 5-year tenure with DreamIt, she grew its programs to five cities, raised a $20M follow-on fund, and initiated the DreamIt Access (minority entrepreneur), DreamIt Athena (female entrepreneur), and DreamIt Health programs.
Kerry holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA in Biology from Duke University. In addition to her startup ecosystem service, she sits on the board of the Texas 4000 for Cancer. She is an avid adventurer that has visited over 50 countries and all 50 US states.
HTA - Tell us about your personal/professional background?
I majored in Biology in undergrad at Duke – a degree that essentially went unused for the next 20 years of my career in tech – so it’s been nice to come full circle by investing in health / health tech over the last 7 or 8 years. After Duke, I went directly into the tech sector, with my first roles being coding & QA, though I moved pretty quickly to the business side. Shortly thereafter, I earned my MBA from Harvard Business School, where I focused on entrepreneurship and my team launched a company called Iron Planet in the business plan competition (acquired in 2017 by Ritchie Brothers).
I spent the next decade in executive roles at a series of startups – and occasionally for the big companies who acquired them – though I’d usually jump ship back to the startup world, and in 2007 started my own women’s travel company, Holiday Golightly. In 2010, I took the lead of DreamIt Ventures, one of the first accelerators in the market, and grew it to a top 10 US accelerator, where I helped launch a $20M venture fund and programs focused on minority entrepreneurs (DreamIt Access), women entrepreneurs (DreamIt Athena), and health tech (DreamIt Health – one of the most active US investors in health tech of late). And then in 2015,
I joined Sara Brand at True Wealth Ventures to raise our first fund to invest in women-led companies improving human and/or environmental health. From a personal point of view – until I discovered my personal Mecca in Austin – I was pretty nomadic – having moved over 20 times and having lived in 9 US states and 3 foreign countries. I still love to travel and have visited all 50 US States and at least 54 countries.
HTA - What is the first thing you do when you wake up?
Oh, I’m embarrassed to admit this – and maybe it will force me to kick the habit – but I for sure roll over and check my phone for all its blinging notifications – scanning email, Facebook, NYT headlines, Twitter notifications, etc.. (not necessarily in that order). I should have answered meditation, right?
HTA – Tell us about your early mentors, and how they impacted your career?
One of my earliest mentors, and still a close friend, was a very successful, bootstrapped serial tech entrepreneur whose company’s software I was integrating at a client site at my first job (as a software consultant at Andersen Consulting). I loved the fast-moving pace and flexibility I saw in his startup environment, and he easily convinced me to jump ship to join them in a new state, where I knew no one, for a job with no real title, undefined responsibilities, and importantly no caps on what I could do or where I could go. He allowed me to take on more & new responsibilities daily, taught me to be a team leader, and grew me into an executive as we rapidly scaled from 20 to 200 people and underwent an acquisition.
One of his most valuable contributions to me was evolving my problem-solving skills, where initially he’d let me bring problems for him to solve, but gradually (without me seeing it happening) became my sounding board to work through the problems, until I knew to present him with problems only with proposed solutions.
He also instilled an ability to stay calm amidst the chaos of an ever-changing startup environment – and I can still visualize the words “This, too, shall pass”, ever-present in black marker in the corner of his office whiteboard. Another lesson I carry with me every day in my work with startups is the critical importance of customer focus. I joined this mentor again in another startup after business school, which led to a series of roles for me in the acquiring companies, so I owe a lot of my career to him.
HTA - How can Austin become known as an epicenter for Health Tech?
I’d love to see us find ways to create more interactions between clinicians & other healthcare industry workers and the entrepreneurial innovators. I’ve been at far too many health tech startup events where, when asking how many healthcare industry people are in the room, only a couple (literally) of hands get raised. So, sometimes there’s not enough industry knowledge -- or just the depth of the day-to-day reality of working in the sector -- ingrained into the new startups’ products & business models. Along the same lines, the lack of relationships can make it hard for the startups to then integrate their solutions back into the industry, especially when pilots are required with big healthcare systems.
I think the Dell Med School Texas Health Catalyst and CoLab programs are a great start at building out programs for this sector, and True Wealth Ventures gets engaged there. We’re also sitting on the Austin Healthcare Council board, where we’re looking to answer questions like this in our efforts to improve the health of our community through innovation and leadership. So I don’t have the answers yet, but we’re digging in to work on the question.
HTA - What kinds of consumer health and sustainable consumer technology enterprises is True Wealth Ventures most willing to invest in?
We’re a Seed-stage investor, so we’re looking for relatively early-stage, lower-valuation companies (ie, could be pre-revenue or pre-product), but we do require that the science or technology has been proven at the time of our investment (e.g. initial clinical trials or equivalent completed). Given our gender lens thesis, there of course needs to be at least one woman of significant decision-making authority on the founding or executive team. And as a certified impact fund, improving human and/or environment health needs to be core to the company’s mission and product/solution (not just operating in the healthcare sector, e.g.).
Lastly, for Fund I, the consumer needs to be heavily involved in the buying or adoption process, or have sufficient transparency and demand to be pulling the product through the channel– so pure B2B plays are not a fit. There’s more detail about our investment focus on our website here: https://truewealthvc.com/about/
HTA - What advice do you have for these kinds of startups as they seek investors? What separates a successful pitch from one that falls flat?
I personally have a strong bias toward the requirement for significant customer discovery (not to be mistaken for customer feedback), so I want to hear that the entrepreneur has talked to dozens, if not hundreds, of customers, and can show a real understanding for their market’s business model and pains/opportunities, how they provide differentiated value, and how they’ll segment and reach them. So I’d say to be sure to do that fundamental homework before talking to investors – well, and certainly before building anything!
In terms of pitches that fall flat, I’d say that the rare pitches where our whole team all immediately feels that it was a poor pitch, usually tend to involve ego (or the perception thereof from the entrepreneur). They’re dismissive of the questions we ask and want to present what they think is important – whereas we tend to approach our pitch sessions as more of a conversation, as we’re looking to both hear about the business opportunity and start the process of building a relationship with the entrepreneur. So my advice would be to remember to listen as well as talk, as questions are often feedback in a way. But, of course, different funds have different styles and so what might work in one fund’s pitch session may not in another, so there’s no universal answer here.
HTA - Can you share about the progress and challenges of gender bias in clinical research?
Unfortunately, there’s still a long way left to go here. Noting that I’m not a clinician or expert in medical research, my understanding is that there’s a lot of new evidence that certain conditions affect men and women differently and certainly drugs and other therapies can have differential effects, given women’s different weight, metabolism, hormones etc… among other factors. And yet still much research doesn’t even contain a sufficient number of female patients and/or averages out the results, thereby blurring the disparities between genders – and until recently, very few studies actually split apart the genders to proactively identify these distinctions. The most egregious example I’ve heard of lately is with the “female Viagra” Addyi, where a study on the effects of mixing the drug with alcohol was literally performed on almost only men, with a couple of premenopausal women (not the target market) thrown in!
We believe one way to help address this issue is to involve more women in leadership in companies in these sectors. For example, we’re invested in BrainCheck, a cognitive testing platform for brain health, led by CEO Yael Katz. There’s data now that shows that concussions not only affect women more adversely than men and that they recover more slowly, but that in comparable sports, they actually occur more frequently in women as well. And Alzheimer’s disproportionately affects women (like 70% of sufferers) and there’s potential evidence that it’s not just that women live longer. With women engaged in the leadership of companies in these sectors, we can direct more effort to ensure these studies get more resources and attention, and that diagnostics and therapies can be applied more appropriately.
We’ve also looked at companies in the cardiovascular sector, with heart disease being the number one killer of women -- more than all cancers combined. In addition to this higher fatality rate, women exhibit different symptoms, and yet only like a third of participants in cardiovascular research studies are women. We’ve been investigating different health tech tools (like sensors in bras and other ECG monitors) where this data can help lead to better diagnosis, detection and treatment to improve women’s health.
Most of this attention to gender in research is new within the last decade, but we look to help facilitate its acceleration going forward.
HTA - What's the latest data show about how female founders are getting funded? What needs to happen for more funding to flow?
Well, unfortunately despite the increase in awareness of the funding gap, the needle hasn’t moved much in terms of venture capital dollars to women. When True Wealth Ventures started in 2015, the Diana Project at Babson University reported that less than 3% of VC funding went to women CEOs. Since then, the #metoo movement hit Hollywood and then venture capital, and much was made of these low numbers. Funds like ours were raised to focus specifically on this opportunity, while other funds increased their proactive efforts toward investing in women. Yet in January of this year, Pitchbook reported that only 2.2% of VC dollars in 2018 went to female founders, sadly the EXACT same number that Fortune had reported for 2017.
At True Wealth Ventures, we believe that one of the ways to effect change faster is to mobilize more women to invest in women, as the traditional methods and models aren’t working and are too slow to change. Our own fund boasts 80% of our investment from women LPs, who saw the investment return potential from their own skills & experience, as well as the imperative to change this dynamic. It’s been reported that by 2030, 2/3 of US investible assets will be controlled by women, so there are lots of women coming into the wealth to be able to make these investments and change these archaic patters. And with data showing the outsized financial returns of companies with more diverse leadership teams, they should be rewarded both financially and for the social impact they’ve made.
(For those who are interested in more on this topic, we wrote two pieces for Forbes with more detail on these dynamics: Part I and Part II.)
HTA - What is the value proposition to investors to fund more female founders?
Well, as noted above, there’s lots of data from studies by McKinsey, American Express, the Kaufmann Foundation and others that show that more-diverse leadership teams and boards lead to increased financial performance. (And we’re talking significant increases – like 35% higher ROI and 12% higher revenue in the case of women-led VC-backed tech companies vs all-male teams). At True Wealth Ventures, we take that to the next level by not only funding founding/exec teams with at least one woman of significant decision-making authority, but by also focusing on markets where women are making most of the buying decisions. (Women make 85% of consumer purchase decisions and 80% of healthcare decisions.)
We believe it’s imperative that companies in those markets have women leaders, to have more insight into their customers for product, marketing, sales and support decisions, thereby improving the companies’ ultimate financial performance. And yet, 83% of venture-backed companies still don’t have a single woman on the executive team, so it’s unfortunately still a differentiated investment thesis!
HTA - True Wealth Ventures was a rarity, an early local, state, and national leader in funding female-led startups. Now, how does it feel to be joined by so many other funds focused on female-led startups?
Oh, I wish I could agree with the question that there are “so many other funds” in this space now. But we’re still in the early days here. When we were fundraising (2016-2017), we identified only six other VC funds in the country with a proactive gender thesis – all based in either NY or CA* (*one with an outpost in OR). And we only just surpassed the ability to count on both hands the current number of gender lens funds, though there are certainly more initiatives and programs (accelerators, angel groups, alternative funding platforms, and community organizations). Those programs are great in terms of bringing more attention to the space and supporting companies in their early days. But ultimately, there’s still a need for more funding to the viable entities and we look to all the other funds & angel groups as syndicate partners, rather than competitors – as we’re definitely in the “rising tide lifts all boats” phase of things still.
Frankly, we ultimately look forward to the time when there doesn’t need to be a thesis around investing in gender diversity, because that becomes the obvious smart thing to do!
HTA - If you were not a Venture Fund Partner, what would you be doing?
Operating in a startup. I’m at my best in the early days of customer discovery, identifying product-market fit, designing the early MVP product & operational processes to support it – being flexible and rapidly adjusting to inevitable change. That’s what makes being a seed-stage investor such a fit for me. I get to dig in with new companies at this stage every day, either as a board member in our portfolio companies, or even with the companies pitching to us or getting our early feedback before they’re ready for investment